Published November 17, 2014
A New York auto shop owner who survived 18 hours without a life jacket in Lake Huron after his small, two-seat Cessna crashed within sight of the Michigan shoreline said Thursday that it was his desire to stay alive that pushed him to swim and tread water as 10-foot waves buffeted his body.
Michael Trapp, 42, recounted how he'd spent the night struggling to keep afloat while trying to flag the attention of passing vessels and crews oblivious to his cries for help. He spoke to reporters while seated alongside his wife, Julie; his mother, Jill Trapp; and doctors at the Saginaw hospital where he was being treated.
"When I kept getting doused by the water then I started thinking about family," said Trapp, of Gouverneur, N.Y. "'Oh my God, you just survived a plane crash, now you're going to drown. That's a harsh reality to think about."
Dean and Diane Petitpren, a couple from the Detroit suburb of Grosse Pointe Farms, and some friends hauled Trapp aboard their yacht about 10:23 a.m. Wednesday after Diane saw a sock waving on the surface of the blue-green water.
"Eighteen hours is a long time in the water," said Trapp, who took off Tuesday from New York State and was headed to Eau Claire, Wis., for a family gathering.
He initially considered a commercial flight, but balked at the $922 round trip airfare. "I said I can fly there and back for 400 bucks and I wanted to do it," Trapp said.
Things went smoothly over Canada. But over Lake Huron, not far from Harbor Beach, Mich., the engine began to sputter. Trapp started losing altitude about 105 miles northwest of Detroit.
"It had the sensation of running out of gas," he said.
Trapp said he contacted flight officials in Lansing and told them his plane was going down. "I said, 'I'm going down, you have to find me,'" Trapp told reporters.
"The plane just face-flopped. The windshield blew right in, blew me right back and I was underwater in just seconds," he said.
His cell phone and an emergency locator beacon went down with the Cessna.
"I made errors," Trapp said. "All I would have had to do was grab (the locator beacon), put it in my pocket and the Coast Guard would have found me within an hour. I survived the crash. I guess that was my number one priority."
Over the next few hours, several boats passed and Trapp, who said he is not a great swimmer, set out for the Michigan shoreline, which he believed was about 17 miles away. He got within about two miles but was rebuffed by a strong current. Trapp said he then made for a floating buoy where he could hang on until help came, but couldn't get close enough.
"I'm not ready to die yet," he told himself. "I just kept swimming and swimming."
He'd already ditched his water-logged pants and shoes. "I took my wallet ... and stuck it in my underwear so if they find my body, at least they'll know who I am," he said.
Sometime after daybreak Wednesday, Trapp said he used a credit card to reflect the sun to get the attention of passing boats. But it was the sock that he waved that was first spotted by Diane Petitpren.
"Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!" Trapp recalled telling the people on the yacht as he was pulled aboard.
"They said, 'We were looking for you because we knew there was a pilot down out here,'" Trapp said. "By the grace of God, she saw that sock. She didn't see me. She said all she saw was the sock."
Trapp is now out of a plane, but doctors said things could have turned out much worse.
"Mike's muscles are very damaged, like running a marathon without any training," said Todd Richardson, trauma surgeon at Covenant HealthCare in Saginaw.
"We were trying to get a lot of fluid flushed through him, trying to wash out his kidneys and make sure his kidneys don't get damaged from all the muscle damage," Richardson said. "Once we get that under control we can let him go home. We're very satisfied he doesn't have any other injuries, and he's doing really well considering that he crashed a plane."